Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Science of Motivation

Following up from last week’s post about maintaining motivation, let’s ask the question: what motivates us as software engineers? One answer to this question has become well known in recent years.

What motivates us in creative problem solving and creative professions such as software engineering is not more money. Once your basic needs are financially met (and sadly, in some areas six figure salaries may still be considered basic), adding more money does not make employees happier or more motivated. In fact, we find that once a task requires rudimentary cognitive skill, larger rewards lead to poorer performance.

Rather than external motivations, what we actually need are internal motivations. This idea is from Dan Pink’s book Drive, and you can also watch an inspiring TED talk about it which I highly recommend. The specific things that can motivate us internally are: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Autonomy – urge to direct our own lives, to engage in self direction
Mastery- desire to get better and better at something that matters
Purpose – yearning to do what we do in service to something larger than ourselves

In the upcoming series of blog posts, we will explore these three factors as they relate to software engineers. Employers and companies can use these ideas to inform specific strategies to keep engineers engaged, motivated, and productive. Not to mention happy! But another powerful angle, and one which we will also explore, is how we as individuals can use these ideas to motivate ourselves outside of the workplace. Think of it as a life hack for motivation.

What do you think: for creative professions is external motivation enough? If not, are there other internal motivators besides those mentioned here that could be just as (if not more) important?


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I’ll just skip it this one time

I’ll just skip it this one time. That’s what I told myself when I decided to not write my weekly blog post over a month ago. And here we are, many weeks later, wondering where the time went. Have you done this? Maybe you decided to skip going to the gym, just this one time. Maybe you decided to skip working on that side project. Maybe you even decided to skip your weekly blog!

“I’m just really busy right now.” “There’s too much going on.” “I’ll pick it up next time.” Have you said this to yourself? I know, you’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all busy. When we’re busy, we start an important and often downward-spiraling sequence of decisions about what to eliminate from our schedules.

Being efficient and dropping things you don’t absolutely need is important, but dropping the wrong things can have consequences much bigger than you anticipated. If you have a good habit that you really want to keep, know this: maintaining momentum on that habit is critical. Breaking your good habit just once is the first in a fairly easy set of steps to breaking it for good. The end result is that you’re not just dropping it “this one time” you’re actually dropping it for a month, or a few months, or even longer!

Skipping it and seeing no immediately bad consequences is what they call in psychology (in the theory of operant conditioning) a lack of positive reinforcement. You are giving yourself permission not to do something, and you are conditioning yourself to remove that behavior (the good habit) that you really did want to keep. So to maintain your good habit, instead of saying “I have to do that thing” say “I choose to do that thing”, and do what you can even if it’s just a few minutes. And go ahead and feel good about it! Just doing it, even a little bit, creates more motivation, and a reward at the end creates even more motivation!

In summary: If you have a positive habit, don’t think that skipping it just one time is harmless. Skipping a positive habit just once can start to break that habit and that is probably not what you want. If you can maintain your habit just a bit, just enough, that can go a long way to maintaining it for life.

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